February 14, 2011 12:00 PM

HEATH AND BETH EVANS

New Orleans, La.

Exhausted from his morning workout, National Football league fullback Heath Evans walked through the door of his West Palm Beach, Fla., home, expecting the usual hugs from wife Beth Ann and daughters Ava, then 2, and Naomi, 6 months. But on that March 2007 day, there was no one to greet him. The girls, Evans would learn, had been sent to his mother’s nearby. His wife of seven years was in the bedroom closet, crumpled into a ball, sobbing hysterically. “I told him I was going to end it,” Beth Ann, 31, recalls. “I said the girls would be better off and he could find a wife who hadn’t been tainted.”

Then she shared with her husband in detail something that had haunted her for 23 years: As a third-grader, she’d been sexually abused by an older classmate. While she had mentioned the abuse early in their marriage, that day and in the coming months she told him for the first time exactly what had happened, and in doing so she unleashed the pain behind her seemingly mysterious panic attacks. “It was like a punch in the gut,” says Evans, 32, who plays for the New Orleans Saints and has since relocated his family to that city. “I didn’t know what to say. So I sat down beside her and cried.”

That moment transformed their marriage and gave them a new mission in life. As Beth Ann began to heal, after finally finding an effective therapist, Heath started the nonprofit Heath Evans Foundation (heath evans.org), which provides free, long-term counseling to victims of childhood sexual abuse. It is a horror that mars the youth of up to 1 in 7 women and 1 in 20 men, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center.

To date, through the couple’s own largesse and money brought in from celebrity golf and softball fund-raisers, the nonprofit has garnered $1.5 million. With two paid administrators and a network of 17 licensed psychotherapists, it has provided counseling, with a faith-based component, for more than 160 children and adults from low-income homes. “They are helping to strip away the shame of being a victim,” says Florida state attorney Michael McAuliffe, “and that’s crucial for having people come forward so we can prosecute perpetrators.”

Seeking legal redress and getting professional help were options a young Beth Ann never knew about. When an older student she knew began to lure her to empty corridors in school and fondle her, “I knew it was wrong; I prayed to God for it to stop,” Beth Ann says, “but it kept going on.” The abuse lasted a year, ending only when the student graduated from the elementary school. When Beth Ann was 12, she told her mother, who felt it was too late to get any help. “I just thought,” Beth Ann recalls, “I had to get over it.”

She’s still recovering today. But for the first time in her life, she’s feeling a measure of peace, and both she and Heath have found solace in helping other victims. “My therapist is amazing; I’ve quit drinking and smoking, and I don’t yell and scream anymore,” says Erika Warren, 38, a sexual-abuse survivor who learned of the organization after seeing Heath and Beth Ann on TV and has been seeing one of the therapists for 1½ years. “Heath and Beth Ann have helped me so much.”

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